Friday, February 19, 2010

What's the Most Rewarding Thing about Being an Animator?

That's a really great question, and something I've been struggling with lately, to be honest.

I mean, there are all sorts of easy answers...The excitement of getting to work with artists who inspire you, or the joy of finding such an amazing group of friends in this industry, the thrill of sitting next to your family as you see your name in the credits, or the creative stimulation from the ever-changing challenges you're presented with...

The truth, though, is that the last year especially, I've been feeling like my contribution to the world as an animator is... well, not as great as it could be were I to jump ship and throw myself into something else. Something more "meaningful." Building houses, becoming a doctor, joining the Peace Corps, HELPING people in some way. In any way.

It seems like every other person I meet is a nurse or a doctor or a social worker or a counselor or something who's directly impacting the lives of the people around them in a tangible way. I'm so envious of what they do and their accomplishments and it really has been making me feel like our accomplishments pale in comparison in such a glaring and overwhelming way.

Don't get me wrong, I *love* animation. I'm as passionate about this stuff now as I ever have been, and know darn well that I've been blessed and lucky beyond anything I deserve in this industry. I love animating, I love talking about animation, and I love meeting and getting to know animators. This job is crazy inspiring artistically, and more fun than anyone should have in a "job."

But how can I meet a firefighter and think that what I do matters in any real way compared to the lives he saves on a weekly basis?

I won't lie – it's had me down. I don't know how many of you have felt the same way, but I suspect many of you have thought about this... We don't have a lot of time here on this ball of Earth, and I want to know that I spent it well, you know?

At least that's how I was feeling this week until I had dinner with an old friend of mine who reopened my eyes to what we are truly doing.

He reminded me of an experience we both shared. When we were 5, we both separately saw Empire Strikes Back, and it changed our lives in a very real way. It gave us a passion for storytelling, and a dream to help create new worlds.

He pointed out that while we may not be building someone a house today, we might just help inspire a whole new generation of dreamers and storytellers. That there are 5 year olds out there just like us, with piles of creativity just waiting to be unlocked by a film or TV show or game that knocks their socks off and lights a fire within them, just as we were blown away by Empire, Nimh, Jurassic Park, and Toy Story. And those 5 year olds in turn will grow up to tell a whole new batch of stories and create lasting works of art that could uplift and inspire countless others, not to mention the possibility of taking the art form we love to a whole new level as future animators.

This also got me thinking about how most animators work on projects whose primary goal is to entertain an audience, and thus distract them from their daily miseries and troubles. Storytelling in all its forms has always served to help people escape their sadnesses, their illnesses, their fears, and their disappointments. While hiding from the difficult truths that hound our daily lives isn't generally the best way of dealing with them, I do think that temporary reprieves from those troubles are an important part of coping with them, absorbing them, and getting ready to move on from them.

And so, in yet another way, storytelling does serve a very important purpose, and one we can be proud to be a part of!

On top of that, we also occasionally get to be a part of a project that enlightens. Whether it's a film helping the audience broaden their worldview, a TV show teaching children to be selfless, or even the most action-packed video game forcing us to confront the consequences of violence; all of these mediums have the potential to be powerful methods to make people think and feel.

Of course, sometimes (many times, even) a story merely serves to excite and entertain and isn't very concerned with any particular message, and that's fine too. For those projects, we can feel good about still giving people the escape they need, and hopefully the inspiration they might not even have known they needed.

So, what's the most rewarding thing about being an animator? I guess it's the chance to inspire, the chance to teach, the chance to spread some laughter, and the chance to give an escape to people to desperately need it, even if only for a couple hours.

Thanks to my friend for reminding me that animation IS more than just having fun bringing something to life. I thought others out there might need a similar reminder, and when I saw this question come through from the blog, it seemed like a perfect chance to share.

So get out there and inspire/teach/entertain/rescue someone!!

Shawn :)


david a said...

We had this discussion at work and with many friends a few months ago. And it even ballooned into: Well why do we 'waste' time on video games? And that led to, what about other arts then? Music, dance, literature, film, why do we 'spend' time with those things too? Games are no different. But I think if we focused on what benefits society immediately and directly then we lose something that society needs: inspiration. That long term, intangibility that is the future. Art artist and the broad spectrum of that bring stories, hopes, ideas. We provide the blankets of security, or the dreams and inspirations like you said. And while that may not heal, shelter and feed the body; I think it does catalyzes the mind. I sometimes have this discussion with my girlfriend to who is halfway through her veterinarian degree. While she heals the body, I as an animator heal the mind :) Awesome post as always!

Erika Ridley said...

Great to have you with us as a conquistador of the new generation. Life is about passing on one's knowledge to others and in turn encourage everyone to start taking care of our ever so lovely planet.
You may be interested in a little project i'm heavily involved in.
Go have a look at
Oh and do read it all as there's a lot in there that might appeal.

Lexi said...

Granted I am still only studying Visual Effects. I have always wanted to be a technical director for animated films, and VSFX major seems like the best way. I always looked at animation as a way to protect children's entertainment. So much of children's entertainment now is less then it should be. However the great animation houses such as Pixar, Disney, Blue Sky and 50% of Dreamworks' product is great children's entertainment. I don't know if it is because of the extra time animation takes or the people who like the medium, but It just is much smarter and tends to lack the crass humor many films and television shows employ.

erica said...

I'm actually good friends with a doctor and I've had this exact conversation with her! She told me that in addition to the inspiration and distraction you mentioned, there have been some studies that show people really do get better faster when they have a positive environment around them. It's not just a mental thing, although mental fitness can be a big factor in how quickly you can heal. So watching an uplifting movie can really help someone!

I'm 100% with you on the enlightenment aspect as well. My senior year in high school I did an experiment with some elementary school kids to teach them some basic math skills. I split them into 3 groups - to the first group I gave a worksheet with text explaining a math concept. Another group I gave an illustrated worksheet to. The third group I had watch a short clip from "Donald in Mathmagic Land". At the end of study time I had them all take the same quiz. The kids who watched the animation far outperformed the other two groups!

Brian Nichols said...

Ultimately the most rewarding and fruitful part of life is taking care of those we encounter. Animation isn't saving a life but that career allows the opportunity to not only inspire people, but to provide for your family, and become a productive member of society. If that doesn't feel like it impacts people directly, we can always volunteer our time or donate money for good. You may not be the headline of the news but people will remember the good you do in life and thats what matters most. No matter how you choose to do it.

This blog got deep, fast:) Great post though.

Unknown said...

I have felt the same way too since most or should I say majority of my friends are helping people in one way or another "directly". But the key thing I always imbibe in mind are the words "inspiration" and "encouragement". We create possibilities that no other human on this planet could ever think of. We open gates.

Thanks so much for the inspiration, Shawn! ^_^


Herman Gonzales said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Herman Gonzales said...


My bad, type-O

Definitely an big eye opener, those are very fulfilling aims to be and stay being an Animator. To entertain, inspire and teach. Really keeps me going from tough times too.
Thanks for shedding light on such an issue.

Phil Willis said...

Great post Shawn - and very timely. I've been thinking along the same lines recently as well.

All entertainers (including animators) provide more than just escapism and a diversion from the stresses of life.

At their best, they can inspire, create wonder and raise people's spirits.

It's one of the reasons I decided to get into animation - because it was a form of storytelling I felt passionately about.

Keep the posts coming.

Unknown said...

Great post Shawn! I'm actually an ICU nurse at one of the most world renown hospitals in the world, Mayo Clinic, and let me tell's not all it's cracked up to be. When you get into the field you think about how you're going to save lives and make a difference, but you realize how you end up the middle man in a tangled web of red tape and ultimately have your hands tied behind your back. A lot of times you feel like you're doing nothing but prolonging people pain and suffering. The hours are long, which I know you're accustomed to, however, healthcare, firefighting, etc is super physical, mental, emotional, and wreck havoc on you overall. I've been in this field for several years and decided I need to follow my dream, animation. There's no perfect job but in the end you need to do something YOU love. We don't want to come to our end of the line and have lots of "what if's", which I see a lot.

Douglas Michael Massing said...

Thanks for addressing these issues. If you don't know Sullivan's Travels, check it out some time. Best, M.

Nicolette said...

Great topic Shawn. I've wondered about these things too :)

curta said...

video very cool........

Breanna's Blog said...

I sit on the other side of your dilemma. I serve at an organization that reaches into some of the most undeveloped areas of Asia and helps them with food and homes and spiritual support. I left teaching art in the public school and do graphic art and illustration for Gospel for Asia. I just purposed to incorporate animation for kids so we can share with them what we do and how they can help be apart. I am looking to you to help with the wisdom to pull this off in such a way that will make for an enjoyable animation experience and an impactful one. I hope some day soon to attend your school if things line up money wise. Lenny Buscemi

Anna said...

It is so refreshing and reassuring to have an artist at your level still contemplate this question- it's an important one to contemplate! My hope is that when I graduate and enter the workforce, there will be even more studios or groups that will produce work that inspire as well as entertain. If I can't find one that fits my beliefs, I will work where I can to build up experience, and then maybe found my own! If nothing else, animation can be a great (and non-threatening) way to produce empathy for people, animals, and the planet because of its hyperreal/surreal nature.

Mark Lauden Crosley said...

I recently saw an Animation Mentor student film that offered some insight on this. It was a clever, cute short animation about an encounter between two people. In the way that only animation can do, it focused attention on a meaningful, deeply human, and funny interaction. It left me smiling and a little bit inspired. It was a gift from the animator.

Last night I spoke to an AM student who had taught math in an inner-city school, in terribly difficult circumstances. He gave up teaching, at least in those circumstances, to become an animator. I suspect that he will become a conscientious artist whose work reflects and teaches about the human condition. Which, to me, is what the greatest artists do.

AlexKumpel said...

Someone sent me this quote yesterday, I thought it goes well with this subject:
"I've been thinking about why I do the things I do. Why I have made my decision to be a writer, photographer, actor, director what else will have you.
None of the things I do are important to survival. I am not a reason to live, nor do I facilitate survival; taking a picture can't feed the hungry, writing a poem won't cure cancer. So why do it? Why bother in being the creator of such frivolous things? Though I am not valuable to survival, I bring value to surviving".

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